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Focus on marriage first, and then maybe the kids will come

Published on ST Opinion.

28 March, 2024

Singapore’s total fertility rate has dropped to a dismal 0.97, the first time it has dropped below 1 in the country’s history.

It’s already been below the replacement rate of 2.1 – the level at which the population replaces itself – for a long time, so this new unwanted low has generated more calls to address the problem, beyond the usual solutions of baby bonuses and other financial incentives.

Some commentators argue that childbearing should be seen as a civic contribution, and that we need more pull factors in parenting, rather than considering it from a cost-reduction point of view.

Others have called for a reframing of the parenthood narrative, from seeing it as a burden to viewing it as a source of joy and meaning.

I am approaching the problem from a slightly different angle – by examining the state of our own marriages today, and by helping young people forge strong relational skills first. 

Understanding the family-of-origin factor

We sometimes need to look back in order to look forward.

In The Marriage Paradox: Why Emerging Adults Love Marriage Yet Push It Aside, authors Brian Willoughby and Spencer James observe that witnessing conflict in their parents’ relationship generally appears to diminish many emerging adults’ view of marriage.

According to research, young adults with parents who reported high stress or frequent conflict often labelled relationships as unstable and constraining, compared with young adults who grew up with parents with high marital quality and who learn that relationships take work and commitment.

As a result, many young adults may interact with their romantic partners using similar relational patterns that they see modelled by their parents.

Mr Luke Ong, a student at the Singapore Management University, shared: “Experiences sometimes shape reality. Many of my peers cite bad experiences in their own life (such as a lack of their father’s involvement, abuse in their parents’ marriage) as the reason they are not keen on marriage.”

His statement reveals something important when it comes to marriage and family aspirations: That young people can sometimes carry deep-seated fears that their future family will turn out as dysfunctional as the one they came from.

It also tells us parents that we should keep an eye on the state of our marriage, if we want our kids to have healthy relationships in the future.

The quality-of-marriage factor

A new study which polled more than 22,000 people in eight countries about their family ideals has found that Singaporeans prefer having one child to not having any.

It also found that couples seem to be desiring fewer children, particularly if other family ideals are not in place. These ideals include good communication between immediate family members, that the family is respected in the community, and that partners mutually support each other as they pursue professional and personal goals.

The fact that communication between immediate family members, and mutual support between partners rank highly on couples’ lists should not come as a surprise. A strong marital relationship, as well as sufficient family support, can give one the confidence and assurance to start a family.

Singapore’s latest marriage and divorce statistics show that the proportion of resident marriages that dissolved was the highest from the fifth to before the 10th anniversary, compared with other five-yearly periods.

This is also the period which tends to coincide with stressful life transitions, such as first-time parenthood or a mid-life career switch.

If young couples are equipped with the essential relationship skills of communication, conflict resolution and aligning of expectations, it could make a significant difference in how they perceive their ability to cope with the shared responsibility of child-rearing.

Marriage skills are highly teachable

However, not all is lost if we come from troubled or high-conflict families, or if we find the current state of our marriage lacking. The state of one’s marriage is not static and marriage skills are highly teachable if one adopts a growth mindset.

My husband grew up in a dysfunctional family, and he remembers much of his childhood life as “chaotic”. Thankfully, through his adolescent years he received mentoring and guidance from other adult figures in his life, and has largely come to terms with his past.

When we were both contemplating marriage, we were greatly helped by our marriage mentors and the premarital counselling that they took us through. Those sessions not only deepened our understanding of each other’s differences but also equipped us with a shared language to articulate our ideals and expectations – from financial matters to career aspirations, and from childcare arrangements to parenting philosophies.

When faced with life’s storms, such as navigating the emotional needs of a child or caring for a parent with dementia, we leaned on the language and skills we practised during our years of courtship. Emerging from life’s challenges together increased our sense of satisfaction towards our marriage and enhanced our marital well-being.

Professional growth, raising a family are complementary goals

In the old work-life paradigm, employers used to think that prioritising their employees’ personal lives came at the expense of their performance at work. We have come a long way since then, and today many employers see that a thriving and productive employee is one whose home and family affairs are well in order.

I wish we could see having children in the same light – where professional growth and raising a family are complementary goals rather than competing ones.

While it is true that in the early years of child-raising, a couple may have to delay certain dreams and aspirations, it is also true that having children forces us to look beyond ourselves and our immediate resources.

Unlike other life experiences, having children has a unique multiplier effect. It brings its own kind of creative power, one that can certainly bring both joys and challenges to a marriage.

While having children is a deeply personal choice, we can empower more young people to believe in marriage and parenthood by walking the talk ourselves, and showing them that marriage is worth aspiring to and investing in.

Today, my husband and I serve as marriage mentors to younger couples in our church. And I often find myself repeating this phrase that was first drilled into my mind by my marriage mentor: “You are first of all husband and wife, before you are father or mother.”

Strong marriages beget strong marriages, and that is the first essential step towards healthy parenthood.

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